It feels like an act of subversion at the moment for an American film to be this satisfyingly meandering, as if it's discovering how loose and confounding reality can be as it goes along. The Place Beyond the Pines defies labeling. Maybe "emotional thriller" comes closest to describing it, but that's not quite right, either.
Pines features two intertwined stories about a criminal and a cop, and, rather wonderfully and unexpectedly, their fears about fatherhood. But this is not a film about family. It lets us follow around two men who are never quite what they seem, even to themselves, men who suffer under the delusions that surround their actions. And yet, this is not a film about identity. It is a story that doles itself out parsimoniously, and yet it is not concerned with tricking you or fooling you or even holding you in suspense. And yet it's not an art film, as director Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine might be called.
It's more like a broody, restive drama that Martin Scorsese might have made in the 1970s. A film that isn't in the least bit mysterious about what's going on, but leaves you turning over what it all means — afraid that maybe it means nothing more than how the world and how humans are a mess, collectively and individually.
As if the unforeseen untidy pleasure of rummaging through the experience of a film long after it's finished weren't enough, there is rumpled greatness in the central performances: Ryan Gosling as Luke, a stunt motorcycle driver who's turned to bank robbery to support his infant son, and Bradley Cooper as Avery, a straight-arrow cop who is uncomfortable wearing the mantle of "hero" when it is thrown over him.
They bring surprising emotion to what could be uninspired, generic characters, making detours into the intriguing contradictions with which Cianfrance (writing with Ben Coccio and Darius Marder) burdens them. They feel wholly plausible as contradictions that somehow aren't contradictions, with hints that they're more alike than unlike.
That's the thing that I keep coming back to: the provocative notion that perhaps Avery, at sea in a swamp of corruption in the Schenectady, N.Y., police department, has more in common with Luke than with his fellow officers. Luke is, at least, an honest crook. And there's a shared smallness, almost a naïvete, to their separate ambitions and expectations for themselves in their work. There's also a shared fear over what happens to sons who lack fathers to guide them as they grow up.
There's nothing grand or sweeping in Luke or Avery's stories, or in how they cross paths. Cianfrance's long, uncut takes are often languid, as in our first introduction to Luke, where he's strolling through a roadside carnival to his stunt show. Or else they're ironically understated, as in how a patrolling Avery, in our introduction to him, gets sucked into an ongoing police chase seemingly as an afterthought.
There's mostly a disquieting intimacy at work, wherein the hopes and anxieties of two men are laid bare only to be dashed. The place beyond The Place Beyond the Pines is one haunted by wondering how much of that is their own fault, how much was inevitable no matter what they did, and whether anything at all could have led either down different paths.